Pop Psychology

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Pop Psychology: The study of fatherhood.

That’s a joke, but then as far as I can tell, fatherhood is kind of a joke, in our society.

Each child is biologically required to have a mother. Fatherhood is a well-regarded theory, but motherhood is a fact.

—- P.J. O’Rourke

You hear people talking about ‘mothering,’ but seriously, does anyone ever really say, ‘fathering’? Fathers are the distant stepchildren of parenting, the ‘other guys,’ the second bananas. Whereas a new Mom is ‘in her glory,’ Pop is more like, ‘along for the ride.’ While motherhood is seen as a sacred commitment, a holy blessing and a joy forever, fathering is more like, “Hey, buddy – yeah you, the one who’s trying to lam out that back door: get back in here and do your duty!”

While many (maybe most?) young women dream at some point, or at least fantasize, about becoming a mother, I don’t think many young men would describe having a child as a life goal, or a major fulfillment (though it may become that, later). Women frequently come into therapy to deal with their unfulfilled desperation to have a child, or their guilt, loss and even shame about not having had one, but men most often seek help to talk about their ambivalence about having a child, or their fears that they won’t be able to ‘get into’ the whole parenting thing, if they do have one. While women tend to see babies as adorable and endearing, men frequently see them as, well . . . boring.

So then, what exactly is fathering, anyway, other than evidence of (uh oh!) unprotected sex?

I take parenting very seriously. When my wife’s out with her friends, I always try and check on the kid before my second gin and tonic.

— A former patient

Well, the good news for prospective fathers is that the bar has not been set very high. If you can bring in a few bucks pretty steadily, avoid hitting anyone, show up for parent-teacher nights, recitals and graduations, take a few ‘shifts’ at night, drive little people around town every so often, and remember birthdays, you’re probably in good shape. And if you’re actually willing to put in the time to form any sort of real relationship with your kids, well you’re a champ. Don’t panic: I don’t mean drop everything and give up your whole life to ‘bond’ with anyone – just be nice, try to show interest in things, teach people to shave, tell people they’re beautiful.

See – that isn’t so hard, is it?

Oh, and if, like me, you do actually find yourself getting involved ‘for real’ and thinking your kids are wonderful, don’t fight it:  you’re in for the ride of a lifetime! No, it’s not the same as winning your fantasy football league, or getting that big promotion, or making partner, or sinking that two-footer to take twenty-five bucks off that insufferable, gloating neighbor of yours: it’s better.

Look, when most men have a kid, they want to go around passing out cigars, proud that they continued the ‘line’ of Smiths, or Johnsons, or Abromowitzes. It’s like, “Look at me – the stud,” akin to strutting out of a board meeting and announcing to all and sundry, “Dude – I killed in there!”

And then, for the next eighteen years, comes the actual raising of the ‘line,’ and dude, that’s not quite so sexy and studly. You don’t swagger into the office and say, “Whoa, I rock! Three diaper changes last night, and I didn’t smear shit all over myself even once!” And you don’t get high-fives all-around for spending the day driving a station wagon full of writhing little people to a soccer game, a t-ball practice and Gymboree, without losing anyone.

But you do get something else – something that sinks in deeper, and lasts longer, than a momentary flush of manly pride. It’s the realization that, much to your surprise, you actually have the chance to influence an actual person’s actual life. No, not just mindlessly spreading your seed and ‘continuing your line,’ but maybe helping create a better ‘line’ for your kids, and doing a good job, not at work, but at home – the job of giving a little person a decent start in life, and taking pride in them, not yourself.

Now I don’t mean to imply that you’ll become a saint, or that you’ll take boundless joy in missing that Giants game on TV, in order to cart Junior around the world all weekend. No, you’ll still want to do your own stuff, and maybe sometimes resent the hell out of your rug rats for stealing what’s left of your youth, but for every withdrawal of time and energy, there’s a deposit made, that’s even bigger: the knowledge, and satisfaction, that you’re participating in something that’s bigger than yourself, something that’s even (gasp!) more important than the Giants game, that somebody needs you, and that, dammit, you’re coming through for them. And all this is something that’s really hard to explain to a guy who hasn’t had children, or is terrified by the thought of what having children will ‘do’ to his life.

Because you can’t put into words what it’s like to sit there in the stands when your son comes up to bat in a Little League game, and, with tears in your eyes, say to yourself, “That’s my boy!” Or to sit there and watch your daughter, who was scared out of her wits the night before, stand up there and belt out her lines in the school play, and think, “You go, girl!’ Is it too crazy to say it’s almost a religious experience, a spiritual one? I don’t know – maybe. But it’s not far off. Because isn’t religion all about seeing that we’re bigger than just individual blobs of protoplasm, that there are things beyond us, that we’re a part of something much bigger than being John Doe? Well, having kids takes you to those places, those spiritual spaces, beyond yourself.

Yes, I know that most men (including myself) don’t ‘get it’ until they have their own kids: before that, you hear guys talking about their children, and you nod at all the right times, but honestly, it’s like, “Yeah, whatever.” You watch your girlfriend get all excited about her best friend’s baby shower, and honestly, all you’re thinking is, “Please, god, don’t let her come home in a lather about having a baby.” It’s not that you don’t understand, in some abstract mental universe in the back of your mind, what all the hullabaloo is about – it’s just that it doesn’t really hit home.

And then your wife or girlfriend gets pregnant (planned, or not) and you decide to have the baby. And you think, “Yeah, cool – I can handle this,” but it’s still just an abstraction. And you deal with her food cravings, and it’s cute that she wants lobster bisque in the middle of the night, and gets sick to her stomach when there’s a Frito in the room – but it’s all an abstraction. And you feel her stomach when the baby’s kicking, but honest to god, you’re really just kind of humoring her, because it’s not ‘real’ to you, other than the late-night dread about your lost life, which of course you can’t share with that lady with the big belly lying next to you, that brave girl who’s willing to go through all this to bring a new life into the world – a life that is connected to her, not you.

And then the big day arrives. She says, “This is it,” and you race her to the hospital, more worried, in the back of your mind, about something ‘happening’ to her, than the baby itself. And you stand there, dutifully, in your mask and gown, or you sit there in the waiting room, and you act like you’re participating, thinking, this is it – the end of the pickles and the lobster, the end of the  backaches and the swollen feet, the end of the emotional jags and the guilt-trips about not letting her have a baby – but it’s still not about the kid, not really. And if you’re thinking anything, you’re thinking, “Oh god – just let her live! I don’t want to lose her!” and you’re so darn proud of her, for going through all of this for you, for us.

And then it happens: the baby pops out, or is cut out, or is pulled out, but somehow, it gets out of there – that zone that, a long time ago, used to be yours – and you’re so relieved, and proud, that she made it through – that your girl made it through all the way. And it’s still about her, that brave lady who has done this amazing thing, for you, for us.

And then your attention finally shifts to ‘it’ – a baby girl. And that’s when it hits you: Oh My God, it’s a baby! It’s our baby! It’s my baby! I’m a father, and I have a baby! An honest-to-god, real-life baby of our own!

And in that instant, your life is changed, forever.

How? Well, it’s hard to explain, if you haven’t ‘been there,’ but I’ll try. In that instant, you find, or rather you experience, bodily, that you are connected – to all of humanity since time immemorial, to the history of life, to everyone before you. And you are now part of the great ‘fraternity’ of life, too – the club of people who have had children. You are now an initiate into the great mystery of life: like a retired attorney is ‘of counsel,’ you are now ‘of humanity,’ a member in full standing of the chain of human events. You find your eyes filling with tears, and all you can think is, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

In the movie Resurrection, Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who, as a result of a near-fatal accident, develops spiritual powers. At one point, she goes ‘back to the farm’ where her father – a hard, flinty man – is dying. He doesn’t give an inch, emotionally, until just as he is dying, when he begins to experience his ‘passing,’ and he suddenly breaks down and sobs, “The light . . . oh, my.” Well, a baby is like that. I have friends who say their first acid trip was like that, back in the Sixties – that it changed everything, from then on. I wouldn’t know – my only ‘trip’ ended with a desperation to come back to normal life, and a bad neck-ache for the next week.

But your concept of being a father, at the moment you see that baby girl, changes forever. It’s not what you thought, anymore: not just a series of obligations, or that you have to share your wife, or getting no sleep for the next two years, or giving up your basketball games on Saturday. Sure, it might ‘mean’ those things, technically, but it’s suddenly so much more: it’s that the baby is part of YOU, part of US, that you WANT to do things for her, that you identify with her. It’s that what happens to her, happens to YOU. It’s that how you act, now affects HER.

I didn’t have to go to Vietnam –  my bad back spared me that particular honor. So I’ll never know how I would have acted ‘under fire.’ But I wondered about it. And I think most boys think about that at some point in their lives, seeing war movies, playing video games, listening to older guys talk about their time in the ‘service.’

But I do know this: when I caught sight of my son Brett, at age three, just as he ran headlong into the surf at Sea Ranch, on a stretch of beach that was marked, “Dangerous riptides,” I ran for all I was worth and jumped in. Now mind you, I don’t know how to swim, don’t like the water, don’t even like hot tubs. But all that didn’t matter: I ran like a man possessed, jumped in the water and paddled and kicked for dear life. I could see him up ahead of me, tumbling around and around in the undertow, tossed up and then sucked down, again and again. I prayed, “Please, God, if you’re there: please help me – not for me, but for him!” It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to swim, that I was half-drowning, myself. I was like a crazy man. All I could think was, “My boy is in trouble! I’ve got to save him – got to!” Finally, I reached him, and slung him on my back, trying to keep his head above the surging waters. I staggered, gasping for air, pushing for all I was worth against the weight of the surge that was trying to pull us backwards toward the open sea.

Finally, I was able to drop down on all fours, and with him on my back, crawl laboriously forward towards the shore, rocks and sand grinding into my knees with every move.

At last, we made it, me and my boy, my Brett who was part of me – the best part. We lay there panting for a few minutes, then he, being Brett, got up and dashed off to his next adventure, with a little glance backward that said, “My Daddy!” And in that moment, I knew I would have done just fine in Vietnam, and much more than that, that in saving my boy, I had become more of a man. I was part of the earth in a different way, part of the human race in a deeper way.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a God who listens to the prayers of desperate fathers, but in that moment, as I watched my boy race away, I felt that if there is a God, it’s somehow all tied up with love and devotion – because being a father forces you to get your mind off of yourself and look beyond you, beyond all of us, and be a part of something big, something that has no end.

I stood up and brushed myself off. I saw the boys up on the bluff, kicking a sparkly soccer ball back and forth, and set off to join them – so thankful, in a new and deeper way, for the grace of being a father.

And then, suddenly, like one of those big breakers, it hit me: all along, they were raising me!

I couldn’t get the smile off my face all afternoon.

Fatherhood: it’s no joke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

A Week With The Old Man

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The Big Day had arrived: the day my mother and sister were off to Camp Osito for the week, a Girl Scout camp where god knows what was supposed to happen: Mother-daughter bonding? Being steeped in Girl Scout lore? A week of someone else cooking for you? Some kind of proto-Girl Power? I didn’t know then, or now, and honestly, didn’t really care.

Why?

Because what it meant for me was only one thing:

A Week With The Old Man – just me and him.

Yeah, yeah, I wasn’t kidding myself: the part of the deal that involved me was the lop-end of all the planning, not the point of it. The point was for my mother and sister to go off and do their Girl Scout thing. The part that involved me was a left-over – a left-over that, if he thought about it at all, probably had the Old Man muttering to himself late at night, “Son of a bitch – what the hell am I supposed to do with a damn kid for a whole week?”

You see, we didn’t do things ‘together,’ he and I. We did things as a family, mostly impelled by my mother, and mostly ‘educational’ outings: The County Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, maybe a Mission or two, Griffith Park Observatory, and like that.

The Zoo?

Declassé.

Disneyland?

Horrors – mindless idiocy, for the great unwashed.

Education: that was her big thing. One day, an oval metal trashcan suddenly appeared in my room, with the pennants of Ivy League universities plastered all over it. Uh yeah, I got the hint. We watched Omnibus on Sundays (yep, the one with Alistair Cookie); the Leonard Bernstein specials for children (“This is an oboe, kid”); College Bowl (“For twenty points, what color is the Dartmouth pennant on Gregg Bernstein’s trashcan?”); The Twentieth Century, with Walter Cronkite; You Are There (“Hurry – they’re doing a recreation of the Dred Scott case!”).

Well, you get the idea.

I know I did.

And where was my Dad in all this? Going along, mostly. My mother was “in charge of the kids.” Once, years later, I asked the Old Man why he wasn’t more involved in raising us – in knowing us. His answer:

“All that was your mother’s department.” (Pause) “She used to be a teacher, ya know.”

Gee, how flattering to be called “all that.” And as for my mom, the teacher, I’m not sure she ever really made a distinction between home-schooling and raising kids. They were pretty much one and the same in her book.

Anyway, back to The Big Day, and The Big Week. Wow, I thought to myself – a whole week, alone with the Old Man, maybe seeing the parts of him that he had to keep under wraps around Mom, maybe learning a few tricks of the trade of being a guy, maybe getting a few risque stories out of him, some inside stuff about old girlfriends, a wild tale or two – you know, finding out what he would do if he wasn’t in Family Man mode all the time. I mean, what did I know? Maybe he’d always wanted to be an acrobat, or an electrician, or a traveling salesman. I mean, who was this guy, my Dad?

I did know a few stories about the ‘old’ Old Man: I knew that he used to be a reporter for a news service, assigned to the sheriff’s office (that would be Sheriff Biscaluiz, if you’re an L.A. type), that he used to hang around City Hall a lot with other reporters, presumably waiting in a scrum for murder cases to break – and that was in the days when being a reporter was a cool and romantic thing (just watch movies from the 30’s or 40’s). I knew the one self-deprecating ‘reporter’ story he often repeated, usually after a few drinks: when he was at the courthouse, covering the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial, he spied Anthony Quinn (who was there to support the Mexican-American defendants’ rights), then confidently walked up to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Romero.” Of course, being the Old Man, he also said that he and ‘Tony’ ended up having a few pops in a local bar together, and laughing the afternoon away.

Hmm, let’s see, what else? I did know that he used to work in a factory that made freeway signs. I did know that he bused tables at a sorority house to put himself through UCLA (wow – major possibilities for stories there!), and that he saw Jackie Robinson play UCLA football (“That son of a gun would take the damn ball from the quarterback, then go back, back, back, until he had the whole defense back there chasing him, then he would take off like a shot and circle around ’em and race for the goal line all alone!”). And I knew that he used to bus tables at a fancy beach club in Santa Monica, and at the Cocoanut Grove, too, where one day Jack Teagarden heard him fooling around, singing, and told him he could ‘make it’ if he was willing to do a few things, like move to Chicago and change his name. Neither happened, so there went his chance to be “the next Tony Martin,” who, the Old Man informed me, was actually a Jewish kid from “Frisco” named Al Morris, who was married to Cyd Charisse, who Dad always thought was a hottie. Gee, to think I could have had Cyd Charisse for a Mom! I bet she wouldn’t have insisted that we watch Omnibus! Oh well . . .

So, I kind of knew Dad 101, but how much more there must have been to learn!

Now, maybe, I was going to find out.

My Mom and sister drove off, to their wonderful adventure. But I was sure it wasn’t going to compare to my adventure, right here at home. Father-son stuff. Man stuff. Grown-up stuff. Cool stuff. It was all there waiting for me. Here, away from Mom’s pernicious educational influences, we’d be ‘batching’ it, just the two of us, turned loose to fend for ourselves and strut the high life.

Look out world, here we come!

So, what’s the first thing that happens, bright and early the very next morning? I get a “son-of-a-bitchin'” (direct quote) eye infection. Oh my god, here we were all set to kick over the traces and set the world on its ear, and I, like a damn punk kid, have to come down with a son-of-a-bitchin’ eye infection! I awoke with my eyelids stuck together, green crud all over the place. It was the first time I’d ever even heard the word ‘pus,’ and wouldn’t you know, on its maiden voyage it picks my eyeballs! Man, I was a mess. It took a couple minutes of warm compresses just to get my eyes open, and even then this miserable green crap was running out of ’em like crazy. Okay – off to the doctor we went, Dad muttering “What the hell?” (his favorite expression) under his breath the whole way. The first act of Life as a Man, with Dad, and here I go all hors de combat on him.

Not a very auspicious beginning to Hell Week!

We picked up some kind of prescription goop at Edwin’s Pharmacy, and came home so I could smear it on my face, and lie in state on the living room couch. The Old Man had a way of making even martyrdom sound macho: he took one of his famous white handkerchiefs out of his pocket, dipped it in warm water, and handed it to me with a gruff, “Here, you can go ahead and use this, dammit.”

As I lay there like a beached whale, trying not to use my eyes for anything in particular, trying not to groan too much, he paced the room like a caged panther. He didn’t need to say, “God damn it to hell – here I am stuck with this kid for a whole week, and now he comes up with this!” for me to know he was thinking it.

I tried to think fast: how could I salvage this thing before it went completely south? I had an idea – something that he would like:

“How about a Mike’s pizza?” (Mike’s Pizza being where our going-out-for-dinner expeditions fixated for all time, after we had finished our Bob’s Big Boy phase. For some reason, I always ordered tamales at Bob’s Big Boy, famous for their great hamburgers. What the hell!)

The Old Man turned his face to me, lost in contemplation. “Ah, hell, I don’t know – I don’t want to drive all the way down there.” He had done it: he had successfully transformed my suggestion from something for him, into a favor to me. But ah, I wasn’t done yet, because, living so close to the ground, kids pick up a lot of stuff that grown-ups don’t have time to notice, such as:

“But Dad, I found out they deliver!”

I had him on the ropes now. There was no way he could get out of this one, without going full-on martyr and either making fried matzoh or opening a can of chili, the only two things he knew how to put on the table. Neither of which could compare to pizza. He cast about for a way out, but he was cooked. All he could manage was a feeble, “You think so?”

“Yeah – I know so.” And now the clincher. “We could get those rolls, too – you know, the ones that you like?”

Checkmate!

“Fine – what’s the goddam number?”

I quickly got up, found the yellow pages, and pried an eyelid open long enough to blearily make out the digits of my salvation. I played his own game, tottering to the phone and blinking dramatically as I tried to focus on the dial, while croaking, “Want me to call for you?”

He bit. “Nah – nah, I can do it. Gimme that thing.”

We were home free. He dialed and waited, skeptically, ready to have them say they didn’t deliver, proving that,”What does a kid know anyway?” It didn’t happen. He ordered, they delivered, and it was delicious. We were sitting dutifully at the kitchen table, where Mom always insisted we eat, when I played my last card.

“Hey, Dad, I think The Untouchables are on now.” (It was his favorite TV show, as a Chicago Prohibition-era boy, especially now that The Honeymooners was off the air.) Haha – butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth!

I waited, while he grabbed another roll and chewed on the roll and the idea. Suddenly, he grabbed his plate and his Brew 102 and barked, “Hell – why not? We’re on our own, right?”

I grinned, “Right!”

Hell Week had begun!  We had broken free of Mom’s orbit. Could buttered popcorn be far behind?

The next few days came as close as I ever came to bonding with the Old Man. As was his wont, he was still playing the martyrdom game, and never quite admitting that he was actually having any fun, but we at least established a companionable ‘household’ of sorts. He was the kind of guy who had to be the Alpha Male, and that kind of guy, while being a good sport and all, and great company, always remains on some level aloof from, and wary of, other males. I knew he had always considered me a rival for Mom, something which she, in her own weird way, kind of encouraged – much to my regret. The resulting family dynamic was something akin to how a male lion tolerates his own sons for a while, knowing that eventually, they either have to leave or be driven out. So I knew my ultimate ‘fate’ (i.e. exile) was sealed, no matter what I did, anyway, but the great thing about Hell Week was, Mom wasn’t there, so at least for the moment, it was safe for him to hang out with me.

And I think that, at least for those few days, he let down his guard enough to see, maybe for the first and last time, that I was a ‘regular guy’. He still kept things moving, though – leery of finding himself stuck in the house and actually having to relate to me, person to person: that was asking too much!

It helped, too, that day by day, my eyes responded to the goop and I could be more of a running mate and less of a caretaken liability. Praise the Lord, we could now develop our own ‘family values’ and drop the ‘education’ crap that always hovered over the house like a tornado warning. I think we went to Traveltown, a place for kids in Griffith Park where they had old railroad passenger cars, locomotives you could crawl around in, pulling levers and turning wheels, a fire truck, and even a “Jap Zero” fighter plane from World War II – the kind that made mincemeat of Pearl Harbor. What a wonderful place for a boy to dream, and best of all, you got to touch things! Now, that was my idea of education!

One night we went to see The African Lion, a Disney movie with amazing (for then) and intimate close-ups of lions in the wild, incredible vistas of Africa, and buttered popcorn!

Finally, we were down to our last evening. It had been great, but I think we were both ready to be done with canned spaghetti and fried eggs. After all, even the Darling children could only live with the Lost Boys for so long: eventually, you want your regular life back. But I still had one more item to spring on the Old Man – the one I had been saving for a special time like this. My friends down the street were always going out for dinner to a Polynesian joint down on Ventura Boulevard, called The Luau Lounge. For some reason, I had become obsessed with getting there, somehow, before I died. I pictured a tiki hut, hula girls, spears and shields, luscious ribs smothered in special sauces, roast pig steaming in a deep pit covered with palm leaves, pineapple slices all over the place, and those fancy drinks with the toothpicks stuck in ’em. Wow – heaven!

But getting the Old Man there? A place that was unfamiliar, with ‘crazy’ food? I mean, shit, it wasn’t Bob’s Big Boy or Mike’s Pizza.

What the hell!

I knew I would only have one shot at it: if I muffed it, well, there would go my chance to do something ‘wild and crazy’ – it was a cinch my mother would never go for it. Nope, it had to be Dad, and it had to be Now. I don’t know what we did that afternoon, but I could tell he was getting impatient about this whole routine, and wanted his wife back. How could I appeal to him? Wait – I had it:

“Dad, what’s a Mai Tai?”

“What the hell – you mean those crazy drinks they have in the Islands?”

“Yeah – what is it anyway?”

“Ah hell, I don’t know. What’re you asking about that stuff for?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just heard the guys saying they had a taste of one at this restaurant – and it was great.”

“What the hell – where?”

“Ah, you know – that place down on Ventura. The tropical place. They said their Dad said the drinks are the best thing on the menu.”

“Oh yeah?”

I had started the wheels turning: hmm, he could throw back a few under cover of doing something for me. Yeah – that works.

“What – you wanna go there, or what?”

“Sure, Dad – I wanna go there. Would you take me? It is our last night . . .”

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Aw, what the hell. Sure, kid.”

Yes! Tropical maidens wouldn’t be the only ones being sacrificed tonight: the Old Man was going to sacrifice himself on the altar of Being a Good Father, and it would only be fair to compensate himself with a few strong ones – all in the name of good parenting, of course. However, it wouldn’t be any of that “sissy shit” – it would more likely be a 7 and 7 – or three.

Well, we did go to the Luau Lounge – and there were spears and shields, pineapple slices, and ribs dripping with sweet and sour sauce. No hula girls or pigs in pits, but then you can’t have everything. I don’t even remember what we ordered, but I know it was good. I do remember that we ate with our hands, and that no matter how we wiped them with our white linen napkins, they were still sticky. But I’m not sure the Old Man noticed or cared, as three 7 and 7’s had loosened him up to the point where I was half-shushing his story-telling, so that he didn’t bother the neighboring diners. I won’t say he was three sheets to the wind, but he definitely had a good bit of sail up, and a brisk following breeze.

Finally, a cute tropical waitress brought us some little finger bowls and rolled-up towelettes for our hands, and the check, in a brown leather folder with palm trees embossed all over it. I was just reaching down for my much-needed finger towel with the soap powder sprinkled on it, as the native girl bowed and prepared to leave, when . . .

No, Dad!

The Old Man picked up the little rolled towel and stuck it in his mouth, with a big chomp.

“What the hell!!”

His booming voice bellowed out over the whole restaurant. A little old lady next to us jumped out of her skin, her mouth a frozen ‘O’, her eyes wide as saucers.

The native serving girl cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered to Dad, “Is towel – use for finger.”

You remember the part in Christmas Story, when little Ralphie goes into an other-worldly state of aggression, gets the big bully Scott Farkas on the ground, and beats the hell out of him? And it’s fun until Ralphie finally snaps out of it, and everyone looks at Scott Farkas’s eyes and starts backing away because they know there’s gonna be hell to pay?

Well, that’s the way the Old Man’s eyes looked.

You don’t humiliate the Alpha Male and get away with it.

But I couldn’t help myself: I started smiling, then giggling, then laughing out loud. If I was going to get killed, I might as well die happy. Then the Old Man started to smile, and pretty soon he, too, was laughing, “God damn it – I thought it was a blintz or something!”

We laughed and giggled all the way home. Something had happened that could never be taken away from me: for one instant, we were just two guys, hanging out. For one instant, I wasn’t a ‘rival’ for Mom. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid who had all the advantages he never had. For one instant, I wasn’t the ‘over-sensitive’ brain that intimidated him. For one instant, I wasn’t the kid he never had any idea what to do with.

For one instant, we were just regular guys together.

Of course, by the next morning it was all gone – for good, pretty much. Even when I got older, he never could really hang out with me, because there was always that ‘thing’ there – that maintenance of Mom’s upright world that he felt obligated to, the need to be the guy in charge, the need to be one-up, the need to give and never receive, to be strong and never weak.

Many years later, they drove up from L.A. to visit us in the Bay Area, and he and I ended up going out to eat together. After we finished, the waitress brought the check, and he, as always, reached for it.

I said, “Dad, let me pay this time – you’re my guest.”

He shook his head and reached. “Nah – I got it.”

I said, “Dad – did it ever occur to you that sometimes, by accepting something from me, you could be giving me something – something more important than the dinner tab?”

He seemed startled, flustered.

I went on. “Like that time you tried to eat the finger towel?”

He went blank for a minute, then kind of nodded slowly, confused.

“Dad – you were human, then. Just a regular guy. I was proud of you – and proud to be with you.”

He dropped his eyes for a moment. I could see it was too far back to reach, too far from where he was now, all these years later. But something shifted. With a grunt he pushed the little tray with the check on it over to me. “Okay, then – go ahead and pay, if it’s important to you.”

Was he hurt? Embarrassed? Lost? Or just frustrated? I’ll never know – we never talked about ‘stuff’ with each other. We never really connected. Like he said, Mom was in charge of “all that,” though, in truth, she was less connected than him, more remote, more fragile.

I paid the check that night and thought to myself, why can’t people just talk to each other?

Why couldn’t he ever just say to me, “I never knew what the hell to do with you.”

Why couldn’t I ever just say to him, “I love you, you big lug – just be yourself.”

But for one night, so many years ago, we broke through all that. For one night, I had a Dad. For one night, I was a son. And for one week, we had a good time, and we laughed and laughed.

Why can’t we all go out to the Luau Lounge together, make fools of ourselves, then laugh our heads off on the way home?

What the hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

God In Remix

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Recently I wrote a post called God On Trial. I’m glad I wrote it, but the more I think about it, it’s not enough. Yes, it addresses the ‘Is there a God?’ question, in its own way, but if we’re going to ‘concede’ that there is, indeed, a God (or god, or all-encompassing-Is-ness, or any other omnipresent providential Dude you can dream up), it still leaves us with a bigger problem: dang, if there is a God, why the effin’ bleep is the world so effin’ bleeped up?

Or, put another way: is God also in the shite, and if so, how can I find Him there?

If God is love, how can we ‘God’ (i.e. love) a world that prominently features ugliness, sadism, oppression, the triumph of evil, and good people going down in flames?

Sure, God is clearly ‘there’ in the smell of rain, or the changing of the seasons, or the glint in a child’s eye, but where is the God in child abuse, or the torture of prisoners, or religion-based genocide? Let’s say a woman is born, lives, and dies doing unending menial work under a regime that is hideously restrictive of women’s rights, and condones mass murder: was her life ‘touched by God’ in the same way as that of a woman who was privileged to have the support to discover her innermost dreams, and then fulfill them?

At first blush, it seems impossible to believe that such an unfair, chaotic and dangerous world was created (or is inhabited) by any but the most capriciously-whimful, crazy-ass being imaginable.

Yes, I understand, it’s possible to embrace a belief system that preaches,

Look, guys, just because we don’t understand the Ways of God, that doesn’t mean They’re not there.

Fair enough – and maybe it’s true: after all, what Is . . . Is, right? So, if we’re going to go on the assumption that a God made (and inhabits) this whole mess (sorry, Dude), and we cannot for the life of us understand how or why He could have included the evil parts, then it must be that we just can’t understand God, right? Kind of like how a child looks at the behavior of his parents, even if said behavior is abusive or mean or crazy: they’re the parents, ergo they Must know what they’re doing. (And, sadly, this often necessitates the child then ‘making it alright’ by assuming he must be ‘worthy’ of the abuse.)

Well, I understand, and even respect such a point of view: Since it (i.e. the world, in all its inglory) is there, then God, in His infinite wisdom, must have a reason for it all.

Cool – knock yourself out, but I just can’t buy it. Yes, I understand that we can hypothesize that the ‘bad parts’ are put there (by God, presumably) in order for us to learn the lessons of love – and yes, that gets me a little closer to acceptance of the God concept; after all, a therapist is always a sucker for almost anything that involves the holy grail: Personal Growth (Sing Hallelujah!).

So there I was, stuck with this:

Yes, there is a God – but only in the ‘Good Stuff.’

Then there’s all that Bad Stuff floating around: Godless and unaccounted-for.

Hmm, what’s a fella to do?

The first part of the answer came when sitting with a patient recently. She said, “I want to be closer to you – I want to be merged with you. I want you to just understand what I’m thinking, without my having to say anything.” This is a pretty frequent phenomenon in therapy, especially with someone who feels validated and ‘held’ by a strong connection with the other person.

I was quiet, sitting in silent understanding, and witnessing, of her wish.

Then she said, “I feel like I’m going into a space.” Patients will often shift ground in this way – transcending, for a moment or more, their own personal identity and entering a more expansive area, what would be called ‘oneness’ in meditation practice – boundarylessness.

I waited quietly.

I noticed a beatific glow on her face, and she said, “You’re in the space, too – everyone is.”

I waited quietly.

Then she paused, almost laughing, and added, “We’re together, after all.”

Patients often go into these expanded-identity ‘spaces’ during session, because therapy can be a spiritual practice, a form of assisted meditation. And once you leave your small, personal identity, you see that we are all, indeed, ‘together,’ as beings sharing existence, and even beyond that, we are all ‘star-dust,’ in unity with all that is.

So, I had all this roiling around in my mind, as I looked out my window at the clouds, after her session ended: the yearning for Connection, the search for Unity, the need for shelter from the storm. I thought about how lost we feel in such an enormous world, yet how at home we could be, if we could live from a ‘space’ such as my patient had entered – all One, all In It Together. But I also thought about the pain, the hurt, the meanness, the seeming unfairness, of the world. I thought about how we don’t treat each other ‘right’ – heck, we don’t even treat the Earth right, pillaging her treasures, paving her soil over with concrete and asphalt, mowing down entire forests like we cut the lawn.

For a sad moment, I felt protective of the Earth – almost like it was . . .

And then it came over me: an answer, a way, maybe. Yes, I understand, and accept, that God is love. Yes, I see God in the wonderful things of the world, but can’t accept, can’t love, the Bad things, too – at least not in the same way.

But wait: what if I thought about the world as my child? It occurred to me that I have no problem loving my children, even though there are ‘bad’, disappointing, and frustrating things about them. Even though they have hurt me, thwarted my plans for them, and let me down at times. Sure, I’m mad, hurt, even hateful at times, but it always comes back to love. I see that they are imperfect, that they hurt others, too, not just me – but always, always, it comes back to love and acceptance. Why – just because they’re ‘mine’? No, I don’t think so – it’s not, “Since they’re mine, they’re perfect,” it’s more like, “I am committed to being big enough to love them through it all,” which means through the hurts and disappointments, as well as the joys and the triumphs. My love doesn’t ‘go away’ just because I’m mad. Sure, I might feel rejecting, or need to take some space and time to recuperate from an incident, but I come back – I make sure I come back, not matter what it takes.

Hmmm – so if I “have it in me” to do this with my children, and other loved ones, why can’t I do the same thing with the whole world? Hey – this could work!

I looked out the window at the same clouds I had been watching before, and said, “God damn it – I love you guys.” I’m not sure, but I might have seen them give a little squiggle in return.

I looked at a winter-bare tree I had seen a hundred times before, and said, “Hey kiddo – welcome to the family!”

I watched a single bird flying by, and called out, “Keep truckin’, little buddy!”

It felt good – like my patient said, we’re all in the same space now.

I realized that I’m a ‘better’ person when I’m a parent than I am as the man in the street: aren’t we all?

Now came the hard part: I picked up the newspaper and forced my eyes to a story about Muslim terrorists – stuff I would normally avoid like the plague. I took a deep breath and pictured talking to them:

“You know, I don’t like what you did, but . . .”

But what? Where do I go from here? I forced my mind back – and I do mean forced:

” . . . but you’re still my children, and I have to find a way to love you through it. It doesn’t make it right – you did wrong and I have to hold you responsible for that – but . . .”

Whoo – this was hard! I took a breather. Okay, back to the salt mines:

” . . . but it doesn’t mean I stop caring about you, or seeing you as fellow beings. After all, if I was you, with the whole package deal of your DNA, your cultural experiences, and your upbringing, I’d be you. I don’t have to like you at this moment- just like I wouldn’t like my child if he committed a murder – but I wouldn’t abandon him, and I won’t abandon you, either, at least in spirit.”

Whew – that was rough. It felt a little weird trying this new ‘suit’ on for size, and I felt a little like I was abandoning myself, and my values, but in another sense, I knew I was being more true to my larger values, than I had ever been, pushing myself to a larger place than I had ever been – kind of like a snake, moulting out of an old skin and into a larger one.

I know that it’s going to be hard – new ways always are. And I know it’s going to keep feeling weird to not ‘take sides’ the way I always have – but then I still have the right to my beliefs. I haven’t abandoned them – just found a higher-level way to exercise them. I’ve always envied people who can have spirited debates with others about deeply-held beliefs – like about right and wrong – and emerge from the debate laughing and still friends – maybe even better friends. Isn’t that what I’m doing with the whole world now?

Now I understand, a little better, the meaning of Robert Frost’s famous quote:

And were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Now I see the crux of that quote more clearly: “lover’s” and “quarrel,” both together, in the same space. We disagree – maybe strongly – but I still love you.

And that’s exactly my challenge, now: to do that with the whole world. To love ‘my’ world – my beloved world: the clouds outside my window, my friend the tree, that bird flying solo, and also the Muslim terrorists.

Not agree – just love.

Not like – just love.

Not side with – just love.

Not side against – just love.

Not tough love – just loving tough, loving hard, loving like a crazy-ass son of a bitch.

Loving like God.

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Grow Up, but Stay Small!

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The other day, I had a weird experience. Well, that’s not totally true – it was an experience I’ve had many times before, but for some reason this time it struck me differently. Maybe because I’m getting older, maybe because I’m caring deeper, maybe because as you get older, you tend to hold on tighter to the familiar, to the old days, to what has been so precious.

A patient whom I’ve been working with for a while had her last session before she embarked upon a long trip that, somehow, I knew would be transformative.

As she got ready to leave, I found myself saying, “See you on the other side.”

She cocked her head at me and said, “Yes, and it may really be the other side.”

What did all that mean? I don’t know – I just know that something compelled me to use that phrase, “the other side” – something that ‘knew’ something that I didn’t know, until I said it.

And she clearly got it – and responded in kind.

One of those magical moments that give you a little zing up your spine.

What did I know? I’m not positive – I just knew. I knew that she would be ‘different’ when I saw her next. Different in a good way, an expanded way.

And that’s great. But it’s also hard.

Anyone who’s had children knows what I mean: you work night and day to get your kids through their youth, to help them grow up, to reach those all-important milestones: first day of pre-school (oh my god, the heart-rending cries!); first day of ‘real’ school; first sleep-over at a friend’s house; the Halloween costumes, changing through the years; junior high; high school; dates, driving, broken hearts, doing homework, passing tests, sex, college; and then, leaving.

I often tell the over-involved parents I work with that you have to think of yourself as a mother lion: nursing your cubs, catching their food for them, teaching them to hunt with you, hunting on their own, and finally – leaving.

Leaving: that’s always the primary goal, the purpose of the whole thing.

Leaving.

Sure, bonding is important, but this above all: it’s all about preparation for leaving.

So I tell the parents that, and they get it, and they try. They do the right thing and let go – let go of the baby they gave birth to, let go of the expectations, the hopes, the dreams they have (at least some of them), let go of the closeness they felt with that sweet, innocent little bundle of softness they brought into the world. They try to let go of all of that, but I know how hard it is.

And every parent knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say that every step towards growing up, every step towards leaving, is hard. No matter how proud you are, or how glad – it’s still hard.

You want to make a ‘deal’ with the child, or fate, or god: Can’t there be two of my child? Let my ‘baby’ stay the way he is, always be that cute, that close to me, that precious, that close, while the ‘other one’ grows up as I want him to?

Can’t there be two: one for me, and one for the world?

Kids are always embarrassed and annoyed when parents drag out the photo album to show family members, or new girlfriends, or grandchildren, pictures of Little Johnny in the ‘old days’. Mind you, ‘Little Johnny’ may now be the forty-five year-old owner-operator of a fleet of cement mixers, may have five kids of his own, a big mortgage, tax problems, arthritis and a cocaine habit.

It doesn’t matter: he’ll always be ‘Little Johnny’ to them.

He’ll always be Little Johnny because those early days of connection and innocence are a Big Deal to parents: to be that involved, that needed, that close to a fellow creature is a rare and miraculous thing. I mean, what else do you do in life that’s that important? It informs and shapes every aspect of your life, and every aspect of your life affects the child: your job, your marriage, your hobbies, your interests, how you feel about your life, your friends, your own past life as a child.

They all matter, they all form the child, because to the child, you are the only game in town: he or she is watching you intently, to find out what life is all about, to find out if things are okay, and always wondering, wondering:

What do you think of me?

Do you want me here?

Do you love me?

Am I a joy, or a pain in the neck?

Am I just another job, or a pleasure that is meaningful and real to you?

Do you like me, or just put up with me because you have to?

Are we alike?

Do you like being with me?

Notice that every one of those questions has “you” as the focus. To the child, you are his everything, his pole star, the one constant in life: you, you, you. And that’s heady stuff for anybody – to be that important, that much of a big deal, to somebody who really matters to you. Aside from being in love, that’s the only time one can matterthat much to another person.

Sure, it’s a lot of responsibility, but then it’s also a lot of power and importance.

Okay – back to my patient.

What does all this have to do with her?

Well, a lot, actually. If you’re being honest with yourself, and you give a damn, as a therapist, you begin to feel about your patients some of the things a parent feels about a child. After all, if the core of ‘transference’ is that patients are projecting onto you the things they felt towards their parents, and using the therapy as a crucible to work those things out, it follows that the same is just as true of the ‘countertransference’ the therapist feels back towards the patient: It involves many of the things parents feel towards their children:

How am I doing?

Could I be doing more?

Are they reaching their therapy ‘milestones’? (“Baby’s” first eruption of the unconscious, first being late to a session, first strong disagreement with you, first acknowledgment of the connection, first obvious pushing away from the connection, first obvious claiming of the self, first worry about losing you, first thoughts of leaving you – I could go on and on.)

(Note: just received an email from a former patient, who’s now a nurse, working with a difficult teen, worried if she’s ‘doing it right’, and saying that if she does get it right, “I feel I’ll be redeemed.” Well, there ya go – it doesn’t get much more ‘countertransfer-y’ than that, and that’s not unusual, folks! All helpers (including therapists!) are people, too – their own unconscious, their ‘issues’, are constantly triggered by all kinds of qualities in the patient. It’s not that a therapist shouldn’t have these things happening, it’s that a good therapist is AWARE of them, and works with them, and uses them to the patient’s benefit.)

Countertransference, as a general phenomenon, has of course been extensively documented and discussed. But what about the ‘normal’ parental feeling of loss, of sadness, of even hurt, even anger, even abandonment, that therapists feel when patients do get better? Many therapists – and I’ve supervised and consulted with many in my day – aren’t even aware of these feelings. Sure, they’re ‘all over’ the typical countertransference issues, i.e. the personal emotional reactions one feels towards another person whom you sit with closely for long periods of time:

My god, he reminds me of my cousin Saul – I never could stand him!

My god, she’s so hot – I can’t stop myself from flirting with her.

My god, he’s a died-in-the-wool Republican capitalist – how am I supposed to be sympathetic that he’s firing half his workforce to cut costs?

My god, her arrogant self-centeredness is so much like my father’s, it makes me want to yell, “You’re not the only person in the world, you jerk!”

Yep, bet on it, therapy patients: your very own therapist really does have his or her very own real feelings about you, feelings that come from ‘some time before’. Just hope that he or she is conscientiously noting them, claiming them in a conscious way, working with them, getting consultation about them if needed, and using this awareness to further the work.

What do I mean by ‘using’ this awareness? Well, here is an example from my own practice:

I had been seeing this big, beefy, fiftyish guy for quite a while. He was what you might call the ‘hail fellow well met’ type – a corporate salesman who had a story or a joke for every occasion. He made sure he ‘bonded’ with me about everything he could dig out of me: baseball (I’m always a sucker for being sidetracked by baseball talk, and I have to watch myself like a hawk!), talking about our kids, my interest in World War II (his father had won the Navy Cross as a Marine, and he figured out – correctly – that he could really ‘get me going’ on that one), old movies (don’t even get me started!), stories about how he’d gone marlin fishing in Mexico – you get the picture.

He was charming, he was funny, and the ‘lure’ was to just yak the session away with him every time, being ‘buds’. Except that, d’ohh, he hadn’t come to me to become best buds!

His marriage was falling apart, he was estranged from his grown kids, he was in trouble at work, and he had no real friends, even though everyone was his ‘friend’. He had grown up on a farm in rural Indiana – a lonely, isolated farm, an only child, with cold, distant parents. So his ‘solution’ was to shed all that isolation by becoming a big-city backslapper, bonding and hail-fellowing with everyone he met, ‘proving’ that he was no hick, and surrounded by people.

And the anger, the despair and the hurt? He kept it all stuffed down, deep inside. It’s a pretty well known dynamic that therapy patients will ‘use’ parts of themselves that they believe in, that they know will ‘work’, in order to get you to like them, to relate to them in ways they are familiar with, thereby maintaining control over the relationship. Unfortunately, if you allow yourself to ‘go for’ these ploys, both you and the client lose.

For example, sometimes an attractive young woman seeing a male therapist will ‘use’ her feminine charms to take a shortcut to connection and reassurance about herself: she ‘knows’ that her looks and her sexuality are strong suits, and if she can get the therapist to go down that road, it’s familiar territory. The only problem is, if the therapist allows this to happen, it is a betrayal of what the person came to therapy for in the first place. What she really needs is to have an experience in which another person (particularly a male, in this case) values her for WHO she is, not WHAT she is (i.e. an attractive ‘specimen’ – what shows on the outside).

Well, it was like that with this man: if he could get me to hang out and ‘chill’ with him, listen to his stories, laugh at his jokes, and be charmed by his charm, then he was on his own turf. But he came to me because always being on his own turf wasn’t working! He was alone, isolated, in trouble, and failing, at work and home.

So I had to head him off at every turn, frustrating and ultimately infuriating him: every time he would launch into another story, I would say, “But what’s happening right now – here?” When he would try to lure me into the weeds by talking about the time he got Ted Williams’ autograph, I (reluctantly!) had to drag him back by saying, “We’re not here to talk about Ted Williams.”

At first, he would just try another tack – a better story, a funnier joke. Then, when he saw that that wasn’t going to work, he would lapse into sullen silence, looking at his watch (translation: “I’ve got better things to do, and a lot better audiences than this!”).

One day, he finally said, “Look – whatever your game is, I don’t know how to play it.”

I said, “Of course you don’t – you’re not here to practice what you do know how to do. You’re here to work on things you don’t know how to do. Are you willing to trust me enough to hang in with this for a while, and see where it takes us? I love your jokes, and your stories. And, believe me, I’d love to talk about Ted Williams all day long, but it wouldn’t do a thing for you. I think you’re worth more than that – a lot more. And as for ‘playing my game’ goes – that’s not really accurate: what I’m suggesting is that we STOP playing games – your games – and see what happens. Sure, it’s uncomfortable: all you know is your game, and it works on almost everybody – hell, it works on me, too, but there’s more to you than jokes and stories, even though you don’t know it. I’m telling you that I know it – give me a chance to prove it. Okay?”

I held out my hand.

I wish I could say that I saved his marriage, healed his rift with his children, and raised the dead. But I will say this (with apologies to baseball fans everywhere): Stan became a Man. He actually became an organizational consultant (as he called it, a “therapist for businesses”), using his interpersonal gifts to help people forge workable and functional relationships. It was too late for his marriage, but he did remarry, a warm, big-hearted woman with whom he achieved genuine closeness.

He isn’t “alone in a crowd” anymore, and though nowadays everyone isn’t his ‘best friend’, he does have a few real friends, whom he doesn’t feel he has to entertain constantly.

So, am I ever going to get back to my original topic, which is the woman patient who’s going off on a trip which I know will ‘change’ her?

Yes, believe it or not.

Like a doting parent with a child who’s growing up, I want there to be ‘two’ of her: one to be the person I have come to know, respect and treasure, and the ‘other’ to be the one who goes off, has great adventures, expands her life in wonderful ways, and, maybe, comes back to teach me a few things!

But then, I will always have the ‘first one’ in my heart – the things we went through, the demons she faced, her journey to the ‘starting gate’.

Like the old song says,

Make new friends, but keep the old,

One is silver, and the other, gold.

Now she (and I) will have both: the silver and the gold.

She’s at the starting gate of her great adventure.

If you listen closely, you can hear them playing Call to the Post:

And . . . They’re Off!!!

See you on the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

The Mystery of All Beginnings

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It’s a wise child that knows its own father.

And furthermore, it’s a wise child indeed that really ‘knows’ its own father or mother. I was talking to an older patient the other day who is dealing with her own mother’s decline – making decisions about care facilities, sorting through the boxes and boxes that are all that is physically left of her mother’s life. It seems, and is, strange, that a whole life ultimately comes down to someone rummaging through boxes and saying “In” or “Out”, while a rented dumpster yawns outside. It’s enough to make you philosophical, if you’re an upbeat type, and downright sad if you have an unfortunate predilection for tragic sweep, as some of us do.

Anyway, as she picked, sorted and differentiated the formerly treasured detritus of her mother’s life, she found herself pondering just how well she really even knew her mother. And this got both of us to wondering how well our children know us.

I suppose everyone is now familiar with the term ‘transference’ – the mainstay of traditional psychotherapy. This means, in the Freudian interpretation of things, that the patient will transfer (i.e. project) onto the therapist elements of relationship (internalized transactions, views, issues, interactions, identities, images and ways) that the patient experienced with key figures from their past, usually parents. But what one begins to realize after years of doing therapy, is that this ‘transference’ is also in play in how people relate to their own parents, as well. That is, very often the child’s-eye-view of a parent is skewed, distorted, and colored strongly by a myriad of factors, among them the one-off peculiarities of that child’s relationship with the parent, the stage of life of the parent (and the parents’ marriage or other significant relationship) when the child was young, the specific issues that were going on at the time for the parent (that may or may not be characteristic of their life as a whole), and things the child literally does not know about the parent and his or her life.

This is one of the reasons why I often make it a point to meet the patient’s parents personally, if they are still alive. I sometimes hear things that astound me – no, not just “there are two sides to everything”, though that is certainly true – but things I could not have imagined. Things like this:

A mom who was bitterly described as “always distracted and preoccupied” by her grown daughter (my patient). The mother told me, in strict confidence,

Dr. B – I was battling cancer most of those years. I didn’t want to burden the kids by telling them about it, especially since I was a single parent. Oh sure, I guess I was preoccupied, but you have to understand I was all alone with my pain, and terrified about what would happen to the kids if I died. And please don’t tell her now, because after all, we made it through, so let’s just let sleeping dogs lie.

A father who was called “needy and over-involved” by his son, who confessed, tearfully,

I have to tell you the truth now. My wife, may she rest in peace, was having an affair with our minister for at least twenty years before the diabetes got her. I knew it all along, but she didn’t know I knew, and I never could confront her about it. Sure, I guess I did wrong by taking comfort in closeness with the kids, but she was gone a lot of the time, supposedly on ‘church business’, and I guess I covered up my hurt by throwing myself into being a dad. I know it sounds stupid, but I still loved that woman so much, I could never leave her. So, sure, I was a fool for staying, and I was over-involved with the kids, but sometimes, that’s life.

And often, parents say things that not only confirm what the patient has said, but confirm it in spades, such as this revelation by a woman in her fifties:

I know I should never have had a child. I had no business getting pregnant, and should have taken care of business when I did, but I was too scared to get an abortion, and I thought Joe would help out financially, but he disappeared right away. Honestly, it sounds horrible, but I resented every day I was saddled with that baby. I could have done something with my life, but instead I changed dirty diapers, did laundry and lived on hot dogs and beans. By the time the kid was gone, I was too old to train for doing anything worthwhile, so I got into a bad marriage, for financial security, which took even more years out of my life, and now, well, here I am.

Others are just as surprising – not so much in their words, but rather in their presence or personality. A man whom his son once described as “an overwhelming, towering presence” was in actuality a very slight, mousy man, with a barely audible voice. A woman who was said to be harsh and cold described, with obvious warm feelings, how much she had enjoyed baking brownies for her children’s friends.

Do I take all, or any, of this at face value? Of course not – but these things are all part of the ‘stew’ that makes up the complexity of any parent. Often, when meeting the parent, I will notice, with pleasure, things that are not on the ‘agenda’, such as how much the patient’s voice sounds like the parent’s, or certain small mannerisms of the parent that are echoed in the patient, or ways of saying things, expressions, attitudes, that have been inherited, or appropriated, by the child. Sometimes the parent will reveal hidden stories and motivations that are deep-background clues to ‘what happened’, such as the woman who told me she married the patient’s father on the rebound from her true love, or the accountant who told me that he was on his way to being a saxophonist with a top swing band, when his father died and he had to forget his dreams and get a job to support his mother and three brothers. These things matter, because children pick them up on an unconscious level, and often, knowing this information, you can see how these ‘undigested’ elements in the lives of the parents, play out in the lives, and choices, of the children.

Another thing that flavors this stew, is that families often operate on the level of mythology – aspects of the parents’ (and children’s) lives, and unquestioned ‘family values’ become distilled into a kind of handy (and oversimplified) shorthand:

You know Dad – he’s always happy-go-lucky.

Jimmy’s the brain, Johnny’s the athletic one, and Sally’s always been a dreamer.

Mom’s obsessed with cleaning – it’s all that matters to her.

Well, everyone knows the baby of the family is always spoiled rotten.

Mom and Dad never had a real argument in thirty-five years.

And on and on. While most of these things, like all stereotypes, have a basis in reality, we forget that they are merely short-cuts that ‘stand for’ the person, not the actual whole person. In therapy, we often spend a lot of time helping patients break out of these internalized family stereotypes of themselves, these iron maidens of the soul, and sometimes we help them confront their parents about having these simplistic, limiting views of them. But children do this to their parents, too.

I have often heard patients say that, for example at holiday get-togethers, when wine is drunk and old stories are told, they were shocked and surprised by the things they learned about their own parents.

Uncle Joe told me Dad used to be the one who approached the girls first, because he was the one with all the sex appeal.

My straight-arrow Dad used to sneak into baseball games at Candlestick Park.

Aunt Jane said Mom was a real hottie in her day.

I found out Dad used to be the middleweight boxing champ of the First Division.

And sometimes we glean things that are not so benign, such as past criminal behavior, legal and financial troubles, past marriages and/or children, stories, or whispers, of rape, incest, and other abuse, as victim or perpetrator. Often these things don’t ‘fit in’ with our set ideas about who our parents are, or were, or should be. Human beings like things seamless, packed nicely and tied up in a bow. But lives are not really like the movies – people are complicated and multidimensional, not all one thing or another. Therapy often involves helping people navigate the rapids of disturbing complexity: the woman who was molested by her own father, even though he was ‘the nice parent’ (as opposed to the mother), and in some ways a wonderful person; the mother who was always ‘nice’, but on closer inspection, turns out to have only shown a mask to the world, because she was in fact emotionally uninvolved.

Early in many people’s treatment, therapists have a tendency to reinforce patients’ key, monolithic views of their parents, in order to help the patient access, and express, all the unspoken, unprocessed negative feelings that have been crippling them. They must recognize, and ‘claim’, the child’s-eye-view of the situation, in order to establish a baseline self that they can build upon. At this point, if the therapist were to point out elements of the parent that run counter to what the patient is struggling to express, the patient might tend to retreat from manifesting the new self and say, “Oh, so you are saying I was crazy all along”.

But later in the process, when a more consolidated self has been established, it is sometimes possible to begin to broaden their conception of the parent, without it threatening the self – to begin to see the parent as “only human”, and to understand, in a new way, the actual reasons for the parents’ harmful behavior towards the patient, without using it as an excuse, or a negation of the harm, or of the patient’s (hard-won) feelings about it all. And sometimes this ‘humanization’ of the parent can help the patient adopt a more humane attitude towards him or herself as well.

It is a hard thing to see your parent – the being that was once the center of your world, a titan bestriding the earth, the being that all else flowed from – begin to age and fade, to watch a once-transcendent, critically primary life slouch towards obscurity and disconnection with “fortune and men’s eyes”. It is hard – partly because it is such a confrontation with the reality of our own onrushing fate – to see a life reduced to trash bags.

At those times, it feels as if the Government should provide a wonderful biographer for each and every person, to ensure that their struggles, their ups and downs, their failings and their dreams, realized and not, are properly documented for posterity, and maybe, to establish once and for all, who this person really was. Failing a wonderful biographer, we hope that we, as the children, have at least taken from them and their life story what was of value, what was significant, what really mattered. We hope that we have at least been a witness to their times, a fair witness who took to heart the meaningfulness behind whatever they had to give the world.

Though our aged parents’ last chapters are, as often as not, ignominious, we hope that we are at least the torch-bearers of whatever small measure of glory they possessed. Because, whether we really understood them or not, this carrying forward of their essential humanity is all that remains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Along the Oregon Trail

Covered Wagons

This don’t feel like home anymore;
Nothing’s familiar when I walk through my door.
So I thank the heavens or who’s ever in charge,
This don’t feel like home anymore.

I don’t feel the pain I once did;
One day just finished like a milk carton kid.
All your rooftops set free in a hurricane the wind,
I don’t feel the pain I once did.

Home was just a broken heart;
A driveway to park a car.
A memory of a dream long since in discard
So you won’t be surprised ’bout the joy in my heart.
This don’t feel like home anymore.

Milk Carton Kid – the Milk Carton Kids

Interesting lyrics – surprising. You expect “This don’t feel like home anymore” to be a plaintive evocation of the old days, when things were familiar, better, maybe – but no, it’s saying, ‘Thank god those days are gone, I feel joy that they’re over and done’. It’s sad, tragic, that many people feel this way – that they need to feel this way – about times that should have been glorious, significant and formative of all that’s good in them.

The long, perilous journey from what was to what is, is one that is not for the faint of heart, contrary to what many think about therapy catering to the weak and needy. I’ll always remember what a former patient once wrote to me about her therapy:

I thought this whole thing was just going to be a spin around the block – instead, it’s more like westward expansion on the Oregon Trail, where you’re the wagon master and I’m the timid schoolmarm from back East who’s experiencing real danger, and real life, for the first time!

To have your ‘home’ taken from you, irrevocably, and to have to ‘go West’, to a wild frontier, whether you like it or not, is a hard thing. And yet that’s what can happen in therapy. We live our whole lives in an ‘adjusted’ state of being, but we don’t realize it. We think – we know, in fact – that the way we are is us – I mean, it has to be, right? It’s all we’ve ever known. But, as I said in an earlier post, though we come to therapy to change, what we don’t know is that we have already changed; what we are really asking of therapy is to change us back, to how we started out, to what we were born to be, before we adjusted ourselves to the family drama around us, which is now, thanks to our ‘adjustments’, inside us.

And yet, the reason we hit the Oregon Trail, and suffer its rigors, is not to forget those we left behind, nor to dishonor them; in fact, in maintaining our frozen, compulsive adjustments to them, we actually diminish them, and reduce them to just the bad things they did to us, or around us. The neurotic adjustments we make, in our behavior, feelings and assumptions, are rigid structures, like marble statues we erect, to what they did wrong, when in fact they are more than what they did wrong. But, what they did wrong has to be a primary subject of inquiry, so that we can ‘cross the Plains’ to the true self. Once the true self is alive and well, we can return (usually, and hopefully) to not only what they did right, but more importantly, who they actually are.

You know, I’m starting to realize – my parents were just people. Now, I see them as maybe kind of like this old couple who used to live next door when I was a kid. They had their ups and downs, but when I take away what they did to me, well they’re just an old couple who wasn’t all that bad.

I have heard versions of this many times, in many ways, from people who have reached the security of becoming who they really are. Now that those unwanted adjustments have been ‘un-friended’, the rigidity softened, and the traumas processed, they can afford to view their parents (and other early figures) in a more mature light, as ‘just people’, flawed, weak, scared, immature, trying their best in a difficult world. Most parents were in their twenties, maybe thirties at most,when their children were born. Once you reach thirty, forty, fifty yourself, with a hard-won sense of yourself, you may begin to realize, “My god – my parents were just kids themselves.”

Of course, I’m talking now about genuine, meaningful forgiveness and compassion, the kind that comes only when you have done enough work on yourself that “what they did” is not shaping and distorting your life every day in the present. It’s not denial, just a clear recognition of their human limitations. Of course, if the damage done was by malice and intention, or too evil to forgive, then there is no forgiveness forthcoming, only a volitional letting go of the past, after you’re ‘done with it’, so that it does not poison the present any longer.

And, by the way, I don’t mean the “premature forgiveness” of those who first come to therapy saying, “Look – my parents did their best. Anything that’s wrong with me is my own fault, my own choices – I completely forgive them anything they may have done.” Nope, that doesn’t get it. First, you have to be able to stand in your own shoes and claim your damages, state your own point of view, take your place in those transactions, and yes, be one-sided. You have to be able to say, “This is what you did to me, period,” and feel it. Is it necessary to actually go through all this with your parents, or others who were responsible for causing damage and emotional limitation? No, not necessarily, and for many reasons.

Some – in fact many, parents are not capable of taking in this point of view, even in their older, presumably more mature, years. Patients often come up against golden oldies such as these chestnuts:

My god – are you going to bring all that up again?

You were always over-sensitive, and I see you haven’t changed a bit.

How can you do this to me, after all I’ve done for you?

Are you done yet? (folded arms and tapping toes can substantially improve the impact of this one)

Now you be still, and let me tell you the way it really was!

Complain complain complain – okay, then, I guess I never did anything right, did I?

Recognize anybody you know? I could go on and on, and there are astoundingly subtle variations on all of the above moves, that can be achieved by parents, with just a little extra effort, but the point is, unless the parent is willing to try and listen to the ‘issues’, or can gradually shift in that direction, sometimes with help, there is no particular gain to ‘duking it out’ directly with them. Of course, many patients feel it is important, even necessary, to exercise their right to tell the truth finally, to confront the parents face to face, to say the words out loud, whether or not the message is received. And the therapist must take these needs seriously, because sometimes ‘taking a stand’ out loud is very healing, even if the parents are outraged or rejecting of the patient’s reality.

But, on the whole, if at all possible, it is usually preferable to make the most of the therapy setting itself, as a safe place for the patient to develop his/her own viewpoint, and stake a claim to it. Sometimes it is via expressing (and ‘owning’) the feelings about the family of origin, sometimes it is more in relation to the therapist and the therapy relationship, that these things are played out.

Does this mean that whatever the patient says happened, ‘way back then’, really did happen? No, not necessarily, nor is that crucially important most times. But it does mean that they are entitled to their experience of what happened, their viewpoint on it, their reactions to it. For it is through this process of experience-claiming, that a person-in-waiting becomes a person-in-fact. It is not necessary that they tell The truth, only Their truth, and after all, that is all that any of us has at our disposal anyway.

And so, after the Indian attacks, after the water shortages, after the camp robbers, the starvation, the broken wheels, the washed-out rivers, the searing days and frozen nights, the wagon train comes to the end of the line, and the beginning of a person-in-fact’s real life. Things calm down, the passions without, turn to compassion within, rage turns to determination, victimhood turns to empoweredness; where there was confusion, there is now a glint in the eye, where there was compulsion, and desperation, there is now richness and appreciation, even gratitude.

And, for the wagon master, there is the rare honor of having been allowed to accompany this little band of courageous people across the wide prairies, toward their heart’s desire. No, it doesn’t always go like this, but it comes close often enough, to make life mighty fine, along the Oregon Trail.

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Little Things Mean a Lot

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Give me a hand when I’ve lost the way,
Give me your shoulder to cry on.
Whether the day is bright or gray,
Give me your heart to rely on.
Send me the warmth of a secret smile,
To show me you haven’t forgot,
That always and ever, now and forever,
Little things mean a lot.

Little Things Mean a Lot – Kitty Kallen

So true, Kitty, and thanks for sharing. Most people aren’t asking for the world – they just want some acknowledgment that they exist, that they are heard, that they (dare we speak it aloud?) matter. In ‘civilian life’ (which, to me, means outside of therapy), these little things are the answer to man’s perennial question: “What do women want?”. What women want is (surprise!) pretty much what men want: that you (the partner) thought about me; that you are willing to step aside and make room, in your psychic life, for me; that you are willing to slow down and actually listen, without judgment, to me; that you are willing to do an occasional trade-off of priorities; that, while sometimes, it is about you, it can also, sometimes, be about me. We all want these things, and we need them.

There – was that so tough, everyone? Well, actually, according to the latest returns: YES. Hmmm, something’s wrong here. It sounds so easy, so reasonable, in theory. Give a little, take a little. One hand washes the other. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

Sounds wonderful – on paper. But, apparently, most of us aren’t paper-trained. What sounds fine, in theory, doesn’t feel that way, in real life. It feels more like, “My god, what the hell do you want from me – my heart, my lungs, my soul?” or “You don’t want a person – you want a trained dog that knows only one command: Roll over and play dead!” That’s not even so far-fetched. I used to see a couple where the man always snarled at his pet-doting wife, “When I die, I’m coming back as your dog!”

What’s happening here? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to satisfy another person, to make them feel valued. Why does it feel to us, like “we” are asking virtually nothing from them, whereas “they” are demanding the moon and stars (and our right kidney!) from us? A lot of it has to do with the universal (unconscious) assumption that “they” are just a slightly different version of “us”. Yes, we’re all human beings. Yes, we all need food, water, affection, contact, some freedom and some security. But HOW we want these things differs tremendously.

Let’s take a look at it from a therapist’s perspective first. The therapist is in an ideal position to tailor what he/she does, to fit the patient, right? Therefore, it should be a snap to figure out what someone needs, and then customize your presentation to give it to them. So – easy as ABC, right?

NOT!

But why not? Aren’t people pretty much the same, after all? Well, let me relate a few things from inside the therapy world. I’ll give you a very specific example from my practice. I was working with several patients who had narcissistic parents. You know the kind of parents I mean – people who are very self-absorbed, focused on looking good, maybe using the child as a means to show off to others (and rejecting the child is he/she is NOT able to be shown off), has a very limited ability to feel unselfish or unconditional love for the child. So, this type of parenting can produce particular kinds of problems in kids, which they take with them into adulthood. These problems can include inability to feel pride in oneself (parental voice: I’m the star – not you!), difficulties with intimacy (Thou shalt have no other before me), focusing on the needs of the other person to the detriment of your own (You only exist to fulfill my needs), and a kind of self-sabotage where, when you get close to a positive accomplishment or an emotional milestone, you begin to feel despair, inadequacy and “I should die” (This town’s not big enough for the two of us, hombre!).

Well, there is a wonderful book I found, that not only describes these issues, but relates the author’s own struggles with them, including her fear that writing the book itself (a positive accomplishment that ‘spotlights’ her) was going to get her punished in some scary, unspecified way. I don’t mind giving it a plug here: Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb, Ph.D. What could be better for a patient who has been subjugated like this, than to read a direct testament about it all, from someone (a therapist, no less) who has ‘been there’?

So, over a period of maybe three months, I excitedly told all four of these patients about the book, hoping, and expecting, that they would all come in and say, “Wow – now I see what you’ve been trying to tell me all this time, and now I see my behavior so much more clearly, what caused it, and what i can do about it. Thank you!”

And, what happened in “real life”? One person did in fact say that it had made a difference, to finally be able to identify the forces at work in her inner life, to finally understand the seeming contradiction of feeling BAD when you’re doing WELL. Great.

And the others? Not so much. One of them stated flatly, “I don’t know why you gave me this. I stayed with it through the first five pages, just out of respect for you, and then slammed it shut. What a waste of time – I’m surprised at you!” Oops – we had to spend the rest of that session ‘recovering’ from my bright idea. The other two said they had tried hard to see themselves in the book, but couldn’t follow what the author was trying to put across, felt kind of insulted that I thought they were ‘like that’, and really couldn’t relate to most of it. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but the book was boring and stupid.

                                               Patients: 3

                                              Therapist: 1

So, what went wrong? Only this: people are DIFFERENT. Yes, I had correctly grouped them all as children of narcissism – that wasn’t wrong, and they could all see how it had created major problems in their lives. I continued to work with them all, in their OWN ways, and all eventually improved significantly. But, even as a therapist, in a perfect position to fine-tune my strategy to each particular patient, I had batted a lowly .250 – not very impressive. Why did my brilliant plan bomb? Because there were factors BEYOND my little niche (‘children of narcissism’) that affected each person’s receptivity to the book. For the first patient, my introducing her to that book was one of those ‘little things’ that I did right for her – and ever after, she thanked me for knowing her so well, for knowing just what she needed, at a very vulnerable time in her life. Nice going there, Bernie.

And the others? Well, a long time later, one of them did tell me that she now, in retrospect, understood what the book was saying, and that she had been too defensive and stubborn at the time, to let it in. The other two, through the course of their (successful) therapies, continued to refer to “that time you gave me that stupid, boring book.” Oof.

So, even as a ‘professional’, I had goofed. My god, how can people in ‘civilian life’ be expected to decode the complexities of what their partners want, when even in a setting where “all I had to do” was focus on them, I had struck out? Fortunately, there are some clues out there. There are many, many systems people have come up with for describing these differences and making sense of them. Personally, I prefer the ones that don’t blame the person, that don’t rank-order people’s problems (“I’m better than you – ya ya ya!”), and don’t pathologize them (as you probably know by now, I am not particularly fond of the DSM V – or DSMs I through IV, for that matter, despite their fancy numerals). I respect the systems most, that just say, “Here are some of the ways people can be – if you recognize yourself, great.”

As I say, there are many such systems, but one that has been particularly helpful to me is the Enneagram. Again, what I like about it (and others, such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator), is that they are non-pathologizing. They are not about, “Here’s what your problem is,” but “Here’s what type of person you are, in the realm of the normal personality types that people can be” (and again, by personality types, I do NOT mean ‘personality disorders’ – if that’s your bag, the DSM V will be happy to help you out). The Enneagram divides people up into nine types, and each type has a ‘wing’ as well – kind of like the type is your major, and the wing is your minor. No type is better than another.

Not that the Enneagram, like any system, can’t be misused. Anyone who has spent time around “Ennea people” has heard things like, “Oh well – what do you expect from an 8?”, or “His being a 6 is alright, but that strong 7 wing is killing me!”. I learned, early in my career, that knowledge, and particularly specialized knowledge or insight about people, must be used only for compassion and understanding, never for ‘lording over’, putting down, slotting, snobbery, or elitism. For me, the proper use of something like the Enneagram, is in helping me bridge the gap between myself and someone else, to see how, and why, I am not communicating optimally with them, and in offering suggestions about how I might do better.

Anytime two (or more) people have to deal with each other, especially when it’s vitally important that they do their best, a system like the Enneagram can be helpful, because it at least gives you a way to see what the other person’s actual motivations might be, as opposed to what you’re projecting onto them, or how YOU would feel in that situation. It is not about good/bad, or healthy/unhealthy, or evolved/unevolved (for you spiritual snobs out there); it’s about learning how the other person takes in information, how they make meaning of experience, and what they value, in self and other.

Imagine, just as a simple exercise, that you’re dealing with the type of person who “just wants to do it the correct way”; now shift the slide to someone who is okay “just as long as we do it together”; now, “we have to do it my way”; now, “whatever you say”; now, “as long as it’s beautiful and elegant” – can you see what an enormous difference it makes? And what an advantage it might be, to know the other person’s basic motivations in transactions, in values, in life? Can you see why some kind of typing system might be of use for couples, for parents and children, for employee work groups?

Think about this: a couple has a baby. They believe, and expect (reasonably) that they will both be good parents, both love the child equally, both be equally close to the child, both ‘get along’ equally with the child. So what happens – in real life? Wow – all kinds of things: great things, unexpected things, frustrating things, hurtful things, joyful things, maddening things, easy things, hard things, crazy things. Why? Because, quite aside from all the “we’re doing our best” that the parents pour into the child, aside from the emotional problems, and strengths, that skew the interactive experience the child has with the parents, there is a whole other layer in play: the child’s type, as played against the parent’s type. Let’s put it this way: if you sat down on a bus bench next to Charlie, a random stranger, how likely would it be that you would love and treasure him to the end of your days? Uh, not very, I’m thinking. And why? Easy, you’d answer:

How the heck do I know if i would get along with this person, or be able to deal with them, or understand them, or them me, or even have any desire to hang out with them? They might not even be my type.

Well, there you have it. And, why would it be any different with your child? Because it’s yours? Because “blood will tell”? Because “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? Because ”like father/mother, like son/daughter? All I can say it, good luck with that. Because your child is a person on a bus bench – sure, there’s some genetic similarity, that shows up in appearance (maybe), in the workings of the brain (maybe), in tendencies and habits (maybe). But the only real difference between your child and that dude on the bus bench is that you have to ‘make it work’ with your child, whereas you can walk away from ol’ Bus Bench Charlie.

So, you can see there’s a good chance that your joyful, well-intentioned, gushy assumptions about Junior, or Juniorette, will be way out of line. Not because of lack of effort, or lack of love. But because you really have no idea whether Junior will be the type of person you get along with easily, and want to hang out with, or whether he/she will be the type you never could understand, that always rubbed you the wrong way, and that you always steer clear of. Except, you can’t steer clear of this one – because, see, Junior’s yours, to have and to hold, till death do you part.

Don’t be shy – I’ll wait while you get up the nerve to say it. No? Well then, I’ll say it for you:

But, doesn’t love take care of all of that?

Well, as much as we might wish it so, actually, no — love is not enough. What love does is ensure that you’ll be in there swinging, and hopefully, give it your best shot. But love isn’t enough, as millions of divorcing couples find out every year. There is nothing more poignant than working with a young, sincere, couple whose relationship is falling apart because of a genuine, deep, incompatibility. At some point, they may look up at you and say, “But, we really love each other.” Yes, you do, but is it enough? The sad truth is – no. Is it a reason to give it everything you’ve got? Yes – but there are things love can’t overcome.

Of course, in the case of a parent-child type mismatch, there is no divorce, and it is not a matter of the relationship being ‘bad for both parties’, as in a marriage, because the relationship primarily exists so that the child gets what she or he needs, not the parent. So, regardless of any ‘type-antipathy’ the parent may feel toward the child, regardless of the fact that the parent may not ‘relate’ to the child, or agree with his values, the parent must work at it, and work at it, to maximize what can be made of a ‘bad’ situation.

However, this doesn’t mean that the antipathy must be swept under the rug. I am strongly in favor of being realistic with parents, and even children, as appropriate. By this I mean helping both parties bring the ‘incompatibility’ out into the open, in a safe and respectful way: to say, “You’re hard for me to deal with – I don’t understand you,” rather than, “What the hell’s wrong with you, anyway?” What is the difference? In the first instance, the parent is openly acknowledging what the child already knows, emotionally, that the two personalities are like ‘oil and water’ at times, and that the problems are due to a DIFFERENCE, not a DEFICIENCY. In the second, the parent is saying there’s something WRONG with the child, because, “As my child, you should be more like me,” which is absurd and damaging. The child does not ‘owe’ the parent being like the parent, or being ‘the type of person’ the parent knows how to deal with: the child does not have control over his type – he just IS what he is.

The parent, on the other hand, DOES owe the child a best effort at bridging the gap between what the parent is, and what the child is. And openly admitting these incompatibilities is a respectful starting place for the road back to connection, one that doesn’t make the child feel like a loser, a failure, and a disappointment, for not being easy for the parent, and doesn’t say, “What you are is wrong,” but rather, “What you are is hard for me – but let’s work on it together.” This is the work of love.

So, the “little things” are not little after all, because they require being a big enough person to do the work of love: standing back from the ‘fray’ and learning the other person, really understanding that people are different, keeping your own ego in check, and seeing that when you give, freely and with respect, you are not only loving the other person, but yourself as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.